For years I've had this vision - doubtless romanticized and enlarged in scope by travel literature - of taking the mythic "great American vacation." We would drive across I-80 or I-40, stopping to see the remnants of the kitsch Americana once ubiquitous along our pre-interstate highways. "The World's Largest Bison," numerous fiberglass "muffler men," and Paul Bunyan statues beckon, urging us to eschew the sterile interstates for an older network of arteries that includes remnants of the old Lincoln Highway and Route 66. Devil's Tower, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, the Corn Palace, Little Big Horn, and the Tetons call to us from the northern plains and the approaches to the Rockies. As silly as it must seem, we need to experience "Carhenge" in Nebraska. I want my kids to walk in the ruts carved by wagons along the Oregon Trail, to see the route traveled by Lewis and Clark, and experience the vastness of the trans-Mississippi West.
It won't happen this summer, but 2008 may be the year for the "Trip." I'm especially anxious to head west because so many areas are being stripped of their timber and coal resources, or they're being paved over thanks to the homogenizing advance of "sprawl." Sure, pundits and scholars have been trumpeting the West's demise as a distinct region since Horace Greeley urged Americans to move westward in the 19th century. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, concluding that westward migrations had provided an outlet for American energy and a lab for America's democratic experiment, proclaimed the closing of the frontier in 1893 and inspired a generation of scholars to speculate about our country's fate. Although Turner's "frontier thesis" has been largely discredited as a too simplistic means of explaining the republic's evolution, one has to wonder if a residual "pull" of the West still inspires travelers. Even with its myriad problems, for example, California still draws hordes of people trying to realize the elusive "American Dream." Even more compelling is the attraction of Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.
But this isn't the West I want my family to experience. My boys in particular need to wade into that "openness," in the way they might wade into the surf at Coney Island, while there's some of it left that hasn't been paved over or stripped bare. I'm still trying to decide if we'll spend our nights at cheap motels or do some "car camping," stopping at campsites and pitching a family tent. Several friends have tried the camping route for vacations, so I'll have to survey them for obvious do's and don'ts before setting out.